Tag Archives: Keith Thomas

Sister Act Too

The First Omen

by Hope Madden

Just two short weeks ago, producer/star Sydney Sweeney’s Immaculate turned the threadbare “innocent nun bringing about the apocalypse” horror (it’s actually an incredibly common trope) into a potent and startling instrument of female rage.

Thanks, by the way.

But if all that remarkable sacrilege was a little too much for you, if you were looking for the exact same movie—just maybe not so hard on the patriarchy—can I interest you in The First Omen?

Arkasha Stevenson’s hands were a bit tied, of course, this being a direct prequel to Richard Donner’s 1976 classic. Donner’s film has already spawned three sequels and a remake, and now a reboot.

A lot has happened since 1976 that makes a “trust the priest” narrative tough to swallow. Stevenson, working from a script she co-wrote with Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, digs into the sketchy side of Catholicism hinted at back in ’76. You know, the burned convent. The shady hospital baby switch. The jackal.    

And yet, for all the Omen specificity Stevenson sews into her antichrist apocalypse tapestry, the movie still feels for all the world like a neutered Immaculate.

Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is an American who grew up in Catholic orphanages and has come to an Italian convent to take her vows and become a nun. There’s a hospital wing at the convent. Margaret quickly decides things are unseemly but she’s powerless.

Why yes, that is the exact set up as Immaculate. There’s also a saucy best friend nun who doesn’t seem cut out for the veil, and of course, the involuntary vessel of the antichrist.

How do the films differentiate themselves? Well, Immaculate is not part of a decades-old franchise. The First Omen has a pretty great club scene. Other than that, they are essentially the same film. One just hits a lot harder.

Back in 2022, Daniel Stamm’s Prey for the Devil tried to breathe a little feminism into convent  horror. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was a nice try. Just two years later, a little feminism feels like a pulled punch.

Up All Night

The Vigil

by Hope Madden

For the garden variety movie viewer (myself included), it can be hard to get comfortable with the idea of spending a bunch of time alone in a room with a corpse, even if that’s your job.

We always expect to see a figure sit up under that drawn sheet.

When done well, movies that pick that particular scab can be incredibly effective. Keith Thomas’s The Vigil is one such movie. He leaves us alone in a house with the late Mr. Litvak. But we’re not really alone, are we?

An endlessly tender Dave Davis plays Yakov, who has recently left the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. It’s so recent, in fact, that he goes to a support group of others like himself, all of them in need of some kind of training to figure out how to live a “normal” life. And as much as Yakov really does want to distance himself, when his former rabbi approaches him about Mr. Litvak, well, Yakov just needs the money.

Yakov will serve as Mr. Litvak’s shomer, sitting with the body for the night to protect Mr. Litvak’s soul until his body can be interred in the morning. Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen, remarkable as always) doesn’t want him there.

It’s a straightforward enough premise, something Thomas executes with plenty of spectral dread. What the basic outline and many of the jump scares lack in originality, The Vigil makes up for with the underexplored folklore and customs specific to Orthodox Judaism. The general ideas are common to the genre, but the specific acts and images are precise and certainly new to horror cinema.

As Yakov’s night wares dangerously forward, he faces a Mazzik. But, as is usually the case in films such as these, the real demons Yakov faces are his own.

Thomas’s screenplay may present that metaphor more bluntly than necessary, and certain scenes are just so obvious (old footage projecting on a wall near a diorama of newspaper clippings and photos). But the compassion the filmmaker has for both Yakov and Mrs. Litvak, combined with the impressive performances from both actors, gives the film a soft spot that heightens the dread and terror.

It’s a solid effort, one that reframes a story you’re used to in a way that gives it more depth and emotional power.